When Superheroes Take the Stage

Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox, and Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal (Marc Brenner)
This is probably Pinter’s most commercial play, but that’s a bit like saying the Filet-O-Fish is the healthiest sandwich at McDonald’s.

As with everything else in popular culture, the theater exists in the shadow of superhero movies. I think my favorite performance by a comic-book supremo in the past couple of years was Chris Evans as an arrogant cop in last year’s revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, though a close second was Mark Ruffalo as a son dealing with his father’s estate in the 2017 production of Arthur Miller’s The Price. This week brought a stage face-off between Loki and Daredevil.

Tom Hiddleston, who played the former in several Avengers movies, and Charlie Cox, who starred as the latter in the Netflix series, are this time fighting not for the world but for a woman (Zawe Ashton), in Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal. Hiddleston’s Robert is married to Emma; Cox’s Jerry has had an affair with her, for seven years.

This is probably Pinter’s most commercial play, but that’s a bit like saying the Filet-O-Fish is the healthiest sandwich at McDonald’s. Betrayal (at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through December 8) is chilly and forbidding and drained, its characters keeping one another and the audience guessing about their true thoughts. Yet on this occasion Pinter, who could scarcely write the word hello without imbuing it with malice or sarcasm, at least colored within the lines. (This is introductory Pinter or Pinter Lite: one calorie, so it doesn’t fill you up with bitterness.)

Unlike Pinter’s most acidic work, such as The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, Betrayal takes place within relatively familiar boundaries of human behavior and doesn’t rely quite so heavily on those legendarily lethal pauses that poison the words around them. If you published a 500-page blank book entitled Harold Pinter’s Greatest Pauses, theater boffins would nod sagely. Betrayal is also relatively straightforwardly told. Well, except it’s told backwards.

That motif (gimmick?) is the hook of the play, but unlike in Stephen Sondheim’s similarly time-inverted Merrily We Roll Along (or Christopher Nolan’s Memento), I’m not sure the temporal backwardness much deepens the story, though it certainly makes it theatrical. I doubt the play would be much produced anymore were it not for the reputation of genius that Pinter earned in his other nastier but more effective plays.

The opening scene finds Emma, who works in an art gallery, and Jerry, a literary agent, catching up two years after their affair ended. Another relationship is also ending: Robert, a book publisher and Jerry’s close friend since the pair of them were undergraduate editors of poetry magazines at the same time, has told Emma he can be married to her no longer, following a long and intimate talk. What is surprising about this development is that, though Jerry didn’t know this, Emma admitted to Robert four years ago that she was having an affair, in a scene set in Venice we’ll witness later in the play. There’s a bit more going on here than a jealous spouse deciding he has had enough.

Yet the impact of the cheating is muted: Robert was also having an affair, but no one seems to think this much matters. Emma, after her affair with Jerry ended, embarked on another adulterous liaison, though she has two children with Robert. (Jerry has two of his own with Judith, his wife, a character mentioned but never seen.) All of this betrayal is rendered with a sort of clenched detachment, and in many scenes only two characters are present, but the third actor doesn’t leave the stage, instead wandering in the background or staring moodily off to the side. In one tense moment, the director Jamie Lloyd has Hiddleston (who isn’t present in the scene) sit right next to Jerry as he discusses his liaison with Emma. This could be powerful, if we were ever convinced that anyone in the play was suffering much. But no one is, at least not for the surface reasons: The takeaway is that Robert might be afflicted with longing for Jerry, or at least that the real betrayal here is that he has lost his best mate, not his wife. When Emma suggests going to lunch with the two men, Robert puts her off, saying he looks forward to, among other things, having a shower with Jerry at the club.

Is this a hint at homosexuality, a mockery of same, or a bit of wife-trolling? Pinter leaves it to his audience to do much of the work in imagining what is really going on in these three psyches. That gets tiresome. Betrayal is best when played as a teasing, slightly sinister comedy, as it was in a 2000 Broadway production in which then little-known John Slattery played Robert and made the most of it, stealing the show from his co-stars Juliette Binoche and Liev Schreiber. Hiddleston is a fine actor and gets some laughs out of the part as Robert toys with the other two, but he spends much of the play seeming forlorn where Slattery was impish, which is why this staging drags a bit even at an abbreviated 90 minutes. Cox, meanwhile, is more than adequate as the duplicitous friend, but Emma Ashton merely comes across as sweet and slightly passive. She hardly seems worth anyone’s trouble, and I’m not sure the play does either.


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